Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
Author: Patrick McIntyre
18 April, 2017
I like to keep it simple.
A specialised message for a particular audience can be as windy and exclusive as it likes. But a message that is intended to be universal needs to be rugged, plain and humble. It needs to be simple. This is something that any advocate for the value of arts and culture knows well, yet still struggles with.
Despite Australia Council research finding that 85 per cent of Australians think the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life, when it comes to articulating its value, culture still has a perception problem. We are a highly culturally-engaged nation, yet we do not self-identify as “cultural”. It’s not part of our national myth-making. The value of culture, which we enjoy, goes below the radar, and this can adversely affect policy and resourcing decisions.
In an age fixated on metrics and evidence, is it perverse to argue that the main value of culture is happiness? Are we afraid of looking too simple?
Between 2010 and 2013 I was involved in a series of meetings convened by the United States peak body National Arts Strategies (NAS). The gatherings were between arts and cultural leaders from around the world, with representatives of organisations including large orchestras, community choirs, marine parks and museums.
Among debates on topics ranging from media convergence to community diversity and the future of money, the slippery notion of “relevance” always rose to the surface.
We were quite good at arguing among ourselves the relative merits of zoos, symphonies and community organisations. But when pushed to address the question, “Culture is important because?”, a concise, relatable and true response was hard to land on.
What if the answer is, because it just is? People love culture, they find it satisfying, inspiring and it makes them happy. Isn’t that enough? Surely, the more happiness in the world, the better?
The more you talk about happiness, the more the word itself seems hopelessly naive. Sure, there has been plenty of interesting work looking at some extrinsic benefits of happiness. Research tells us, for example, that lonely old people have better health outcomes once they get a cat, which brings happiness (except perhaps to dog people). But you don’t have to need happiness for a particular functional reason for it to be good for you.
There was a strong sense among the NAS group that the more individual happiness there is, the greater the communal happiness — a contributor to social harmony, productivity and what used to be called “world peace”.
All institutions of all scales were able to discuss how their programs and services contributed to individual and communal wellbeing. They provided personal stimulation via participation or consumption. They were aware of the enhanced value of shared interests and experiences, and accordingly optimised their facilities to enhance interactions with others. And they provided the opportunity for further enrichment and learning, whether through formal educational programs for schools or adults, or simply through the possibility of a deeper engagement with culture, its practitioners, traditions, histories and techniques.
These three pillars — stimulation, connection and learning — seemed to hold fast whatever the scale of the organisation or whichever type of cultural activity it hosted.
Struck by the clarity of the three pillars, I began applying them to other forms of cultural activity or institution, say a cricket club, a university, a national park, and found they could be equally applied.
Do I visit the Sydney Cricket Ground? Never. Am I glad it exists? Yes, because cricket is an important part of our culture. Cricket can be enjoyed as a game to be played with friends and family, or watched with a crowd.
With practice, one can become better at it, progressing from backyard to elite level. Winning and losing exercises the emotions. A great game can buoy you through the week and generate goodwill among strangers. The display of technical mastery can create awe and inspiration. I’m not remotely interested in cricket but I can recognise the benefits to my community of the stimulation, connection and learning it offers, and I’m glad of it.
I can go for years without thinking about the 50-metre butterfly, but if Australia wins bronze at some far-flung Olympics I love sharing a knowing smile with a random passer-by. Swimming, like cricket — and, tellingly, unlike culture — forms part of our collective Australian mythology. We tend not to think of these moments as other than fleeting: abundant, common, dispensable, valueless. But we’d miss them if they stopped.
A cohesive, productive society is made up of endless accumulations of such moments. All forms of culture and recreation play their part — even those that don’t bring us personal joy, because we benefit, too, from the joy of others, however inscrutable.
So, happiness is important for personal wellbeing and, by extension, communal wellbeing. A community is an aggregation of individuals — it follows that an aggregation of happy individuals will result in a happy whole.
Culture makes us different but can also bring us together, and give us the insights that help us to interact productively and generously. Art, history and language can help us to understand people of different cultural traditions.
This mini-revelation — three pillars of value, scaling from the personal to the public realms — gave rise to the model I call the “Pie Chart of Happiness”.
Sydney Theatre Company’s Patrick McIntyre’s Pie Chart of Happiness
Initially a doodle in a margin, I wonder whether it might be a useful template to demonstrate how the intrinsic values of culture in the private realm amplify into the public realm as communal value.
It traces programmatic, or extrinsic, benefits back to the intrinsic, providing opportunities to leverage these, including for economic gain, without losing sight of the fundamentals. Hopefully, some alignment can be brought to the vexed challenge of advocacy by finding a home for everything — from entertainment to self-knowledge to rarefied, esoteric mastery— in the one basic architecture of value that is unashamedly simple.
Here’s Brian Eno, from his 2015 John Peel Lecture: “Art is everything that you don’t have to do… You have to eat, for example, but you don’t have to invent Baked Alaska. We have to move, but we don’t have to do the rumba.”
So why do we do the rumba? Simply, it makes us happy.
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